Films of the Year: 2023

There’s room for Scorsese, Miyazaki and Kaurismäki in our critic’s top 10—but what about Saltburn?

December 28, 2023
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Illustration by Vincent Kilbride

Fallen Leaves (Aki Kaurismäki)

No director can make you laugh and sob at the same time like Kaurismäki. Here is Ansa (Alma Pöysti)—sacked for taking food past its sell-by date from the supermarket where she ekes a living. Here’s Holappa (Jussi Vatanen)—a construction worker, a boozer. Such sad lives. And, in the background, a news drizzle—of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet somehow, with bone-dry wit, skeins of tenderness and his ability to make working-class Helsinki seem one of the world’s great cinematic cities, Kaurismäki fashions a pitch-perfect romance about hope in a time of hopelessness

Past Lives (Celine Song)

Song’s debut film is rich in what-ifs and wistfulness. As a schoolgirl in Seoul, Nora (Greta Lee) sees a boy called Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). “He’s manly,” she says. “I will probably marry him.” Time passes. Their lives diverge. They reunite in New York. By now, she’s a successful playwright—and married. They talk and talk. The silence between their words is overwhelming, the soundtrack (by members of Grizzly Bear) tender and twinkling. So many shades of Richard Linklater’s “Before trilogy”. Quite, quite lovely.

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese, now in his eighties, is more energised than he’s been for many years in this supremely dark western, an alternative Birth of the Nation. Lily Gladstone gives a stunning performance as a Native American who has a relationship with World War veteran (Leonardo DiCaprio), himself a pawn in a bigger scheme engineered by his uncle (Robert De Niro) to steal the newly discovered oil wealth of Osage tribal members. It’s a savagely well-steered parable about American imperialism and the violence of petroleum politics—then and now.

Afire (Christian Petzold)

German director Petzold’s latest film begins with shades and flavours of Eric Rohmer, as two young men—writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) and his photographer friend Felix (Langston Uibel)—head to a summer house to work on their creative projects, only to find themselves distracted by a lively ice-cream seller and a himbo lifeguard. Around them, though sometimes they forget, are forest fires. Acrid air. Schubert—miffed that everyone thinks his manuscript, Club Sandwich, rotten—is excruciatingly brilliant as a hapless, self-thwarting suitor. Most of all, it’s Afire’s aestival atmospherics—by turns lazy, tense and blissy—that make this so gripping.

The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki)

Miyazaki was meant to have retired in 2013. He’s 82 now, his pacing more leisurely and his signature style more meditative than before. Really, though: Miyazaki returns! Partly autobiographical, this follows young Mahito who lost his mother in an airstrike on the hospital where she worked during the Second World War. In and through his father’s factory, he finds a portal, escape, the possibility of finding his mother. As always, it’s about the search: shipwrecks, catfish, the afterlife. And the mood: medieval, eternal, a hurt that is barely nameable. This, like all Miyazaki’s films, should be on the national curriculum.

Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet)

Echoes in this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes of the awful 1980s death of artist Ana Mendieta: did she self-defenestrate or was she pushed by her jealous husband, fellow artist Carl Andre? Here, Sandra Hüller (unforgettable as the lead in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann) is a German writer accused of killing her husband, a fellow writer, who falls to his death from their Alps chalet. Will their blind pre-teen son turn out to be a crucial witness? This is courtroom drama at its most slithery. Hüller proves herself, yet again, to be one of the most mesmerising actresses in world cinema.

Saltburn (Emerald Fennell)

The Hammer House-style title graphics; the ever-so-resonant class revenge plot; so many slurpy, bloody, meme-licious moments… Saltburn is the most lurid British film in many years. After the screening I attended, almost no one left—everybody wanted to vent, to share their gross-out glee, to discuss what had just gone on. That kind of visceral response is rare these days. And so too, in its ultra-knowing marriage of Sofia Coppola-esque stylisation and Ken Russell screaminess, is Saltburn’s love-or-hate watchability.

On Clogger Lane (Andrew Black)

Who remembers cities? These days rural is the thing—everyone is going for weird walks, lusting for folk horror, pining for lost pines. Black’s is no lightweight larker, though. He explores the layered recent history of the Washburn Valley, one of the Yorkshire Dales, a place that looks becalmed and pastoral but whose village was submerged by a reservoir in the 1960s. Decades later, women peace campaigners tirelessly protested a local spy base. This is a claggy piece of cultural archaeology, a stone tape commemorating defiant Englishness.

Gothic Revival (David Panos)

Goth music—its history and heroes—has occasioned many books in 2023. None of those were remotely as charged as artist-filmmaker Panos’s split-screen work set in Northampton, home to the band Bauhaus, whose skeletal song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is part of the Goth pantheon. The song is mostly heard in fragments performed by local outfit Raven Rust, and is intercut with footage of contemporary religious spaces, partially redacted vox pops (“I believe we should bring back the old ways”) and eerie digital imagery. Fear, yearning, revenant forces: this Northampton—buried, undead—feels like much of modern Britain.

Everything Worthwhile is Done with Other People (Rehana Zeman & EWDWOP Collective)

Zeman won this year’s prestigious Jarman Award (a prize named for films embodying the dissident spirit of the director of Jubilee and Blue). Her gallery film, five years in the making, is not just about women (mostly non-white) affected by the UK government’s hostile environment policy—but made with them. They joke, cook, play Scrabble. The emphasis is on care, mutual aid, collectivity. The sound design is polyvocal. It will be too meticulous, too earnest for some viewers, but, in its ethos and methodology, nothing else in this list is quite so 2023.